Some Elements of Structuralism and its Application to Literary Theory

This is a collection of ideas from various authors gathered together by Professor John Lye for the use of his students. This document is copyright John Lye 1996, but may be freely used for non-proft purposes. If you have any suggestions for improvement, please mail me.
I. General Principles
1. Meaning occurs through difference. Meaning is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system. For instance, the meaning of the words "woman" and "lady" are established by their relations to one another in a meaning-field. They both refer to a human female, but what constitutes "human" and what constitutes "female" are themselves established through difference, not identity with any essence, or ideal truth, or the like.

2. Relations among signs are of two sorts, contiguity and substitutability, the axes of combination and selection: hence the existence of all 'grammars', hence all substitutions, hence the ability to know something by something else, or by a part of it in some way -- hence metonymy and metaphor. The conception of combination and selection provides the basis for an analysis of 'literariness' or 'poeticality' in the use, repetition and variation of sound patterns and combinations. It also provides keys to the most fundamental elements of culture.

3. Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions (being/nothingness, hot/cold, culture/nature); these oppositions structure meaning, and one can describe fields of cultural thought, or topoi, by describing the binary sets which compose them. As an illustration, here is a binary set for the monstrous

4. Structuralism forms the basis for semiotics, the study of signs: a sign is a union of signifier and signified, and is anything that stands for anything else (or, as Umberto Eco put it, a sign is anything that can be used to lie).

5. Central too to semiotics is the idea of codes, which give signs context -- cultural codes, literary codes, etc. The study of semiotics and of codes opens up literary study to cultural study, and expands the resources of the critic in discussing the meaning of texts. Structuralism, says, Genette, "is a study of the cultural construction or identification of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-spectrum of the culture."

6. Some signs carry with them larger cultural meanings, usually very general; these are called, by Roland Barthes, "myths", or second-order signifiers. Anything can be a myth. For example, two-story pillars supporting the portico of a house are a mythic signifier of wealth and elegance.

7. Structuralism introduces the idea of the 'subject', as opposed to the idea of the individual as a stable indivisible ego. Toquote from Kaja Silverman in The Subject of Semiotics,

The term 'subject' foregrounds the relationship between ethnology, psychoanalysis, and semiotics. It helps us to conceive of human reality as a construction, as the product of signifying activities which are both culturally specific and generally unconscious. The category of the subject thus calls into question the notions both of the private, and of a self synonymous with consciousness. It suggests that even desire is culturally instigated, and hence collective; and it de-centers consciousness, relegating a purely receptive capacity. Finally, by drawing attention to the divisions which separate one area of psychic activity from another, the term 'subject' challenges the value of stability attributed to the individual.

The value of the conception is that it allows us to 'open up', conceptually, the inner world of humans, to see the relation of human experience to cultural experience, to talk cogently of meaning as something that is structured into our 'selves'.

There is no attempt here to challenge the meaningfulness of persons; there is an attempt to dethrone the ideology of the ego, the idea that the self is an eternal, indivisible essence, and an attempt to redefine what it is to be a person. The self is, like other things, signified and culturally constructed. Post-structuralism, in particular, will insist that the subject is de-centered.

8. The conception of the constructed subject opens up the borders between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious itself is not some strange, impenetrable realm of private meaning but is constructed through the sign-systems and through the repressions of the culture. Both the self and the unconscious are cultural constructs.

9. In the view of structuralism our knowledge of 'reality' is not only coded but also conventional, that is, structured by and through conventions, made up of signs and signifying practices. This is known as "the social construction of reality."

10. There is, then, in structuralism, a coherent connection among the conceptions of reality, the social, the individual, the unconscious: they are all composed of the same signs, codes and conventions, all working according to similar laws.

II. Structuralism, culture and texts
1. Structuralism enables both the reading of texts and the reading of cultures: through semiotics, structuralism leads us to see everything as 'textual', that is, composed of signs, governed by conventions of meaning, ordered according to a pattern of relationships.

2. Structuralism enables us to approach texts historically or trans-culturally in a disciplined way. Whenever we have to look more objectively, when we are transversing barriers of time, say, or of culture or interest, then the structural method, the search for principles of order, coherence and meaning, become dominant.

3. This sort of study opens up for serious cultural analysis texts which had hitherto been closed to such study because they did not conform to the rules of literature, hence were not literature but 'popular writing' or 'private writing' or 'history' and so forth. When the rules of literary meaning are seen as just another set of rules for a signifying arena of a culture, then literature loses some aspects of its privileged status, but gains in the strength and cogency of its relationship to other areas of signification. Hence literary study has expanded to the study of textuality, popular writing has been opened up to serious study, and the grounds for the relationship between the meaning-conventions of literature and the way in which a culture imagines reality have been set, and we can speak more clearly of the relation of literary to cultural (or, 'human', or 'every-day') meanings.

4. As everything that can be known, can be known by virtue of its belonging to a signifying system, then everything can be spoken of as being textual.

1. All documents can be studied as texts -- for instance, history or sociology can be analyzed the way literature can be.

2. All of culture can be studied as text. Anthropology, among other fields, is revolutionized through ethnography; qualitative rather than quantitative study becomes more and more the norm in many areas of social science.

3. Belief-systems can be studied textually and their role in constructing the nature of the self understood.

5. Consequently much greater attention is paid to the nature of language-use in culture. Language-use relating to various social topics or areas of engagement has become known as "discourse." Although "discourse" is a term more prevalent in post-structuralist thinking, it is of its nature a structuralist development.

III. Structuralism and literature
See my summary of Gerard Genette's "Structuralism and Literary Criticism" for more ideas.

1. In extending the range of the textual we have not decreased the complexity or meaning-power of literature but have in fact increased it, both in its textual and in its cultural meaningfulness. If the reader and the text are both cultural constructions, then the meaningfulness of texts becomes more apparent, as they share meaning-constructs; if the cultural is textual, then the culture's relation to the textuality of literature becomes more immediate, more pertinent, more compelling. Literature is a discourse in a world of discourses, each discourse having its protocols for meaning and typical uses of language, rhetoric, subject area and so forth.

2. The thesis that what seems real to us is coded and conventional leads to a consideration of how 'reality' is represented in art -- what we get is a 'reality effect'; the signs which represent reality are 'naturalized', that is, made to seem as if we could see reality through them -- or in another way of saying, made to seem to be conforming to the laws of reality. This is achieved through 'vraisemblance', truth-seeming, or 'naturalization'. Some elements of vraisemblance (from Culler, Structuralist Poetics) are as follows.

1. There is the socially given text, that which is taken as the 'real' world -- what is taken for granted. That we have minds and bodies, for instance. This is a textual phenomenon. (Every term of "we have minds and bodies", the relations between most of these terms, and what we mean by them, in fact codify culturally specific assumptions.)

2. There is the general cultural text: shared knowledge which would be recognized by participants as part of culture and hence subject to correction or modification but which none the less serves as a kind of 'nature'. This is the level at which we interpret motive, character and significance from descriptions of action, dress, attitude and so forth. "Jake put on his tuxedo and tennis shoes" will provide an interpretation of Jake or will look forward to an explanation of why he broke the cultural code, in this case a dress code. "Harry gazed for hours on the picture of Esmeralda" is a culturally coded statement: we read Harry's attitude, and so forth. We 'imitate' 'reality' by recording cultural codes.

3. There are the conventions of genre, a specifically literary and artificial vraisemblance -- "the series of constituent conventions which enable various sorts of works to be written." The lines

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; The center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

require certain conventions of reading. If we were to read it as part of a paragraph in Dickens they would make less sense. One convention of literature is that there is a persona who is articulating the text -- that it comes from some organizing consciousness which can be commented on and described. Genre is another convention: each genre designates certain kinds of action as acceptable and excludes others.

4. There is what might be called the natural attitude to the artificial, where the text explicitly cites and exposes vraisemblance of the kind directly above, so as to reinforce its own authority. The narrator may claim that he is intentionally violating the conventions of a story, for instance, that he knows that this is not the way it should be done according to the conventions, but that the way he is doing it serves some higher or more substantial purpose -- the appeal is to a greater naturalness or a higher intelligibility.

5. There is the complex vraisemblance of specific intertextualities. "When a text cites or parodies the conventions of a genre one interprets it by moving to another level of interpretation where both terms of the opposition can be held together by the theme of literature itself." -- e.g. parody, when one exploits the particular conventions of a work or style or genre, etc. Irony forces us to posit an alternate possibility or reality in the face of the reality-construction of the text. All surface incongruities register meaning at a level of the project of interpretation itself, and so comment as it were on the relation between 'textual' and 'interpretive' reality.

In short, to imitate reality is to represent codes which 'describe' (or, construct) reality according to the conventions of representation of the time.

3. The conventions of reading. We read according to certain conventions; consequently our reading creates the meaning of that which we read. These conventions come in two 'layers':

1. how we (culturally) think that reality is or should be represented in texts, which will include the general mimetic conventions of the art of the period, which will describe the way in which reality is apprehended or imagined, and

2. the conventions of 'literature' (and of 'art' generally), for instance,

1. the rule of significance whereby we raise the meaning of the text to its highest level of generalizability (a tree blasted by lightning might become a figure of the power of nature, or of God);

2. the convention of figural coherence, through which we assume that figures (metonyms, metaphors, 'symbols') will have a signifying relationship to one another on a level of meaning more complex than or 'higher' than the physical;

3. the convention of thematic unity, whereby we assume that all of the elements of the text contribute to the meaning of the text. These are all conventions of reading.

4. The facts that some works are difficult to interpret, some are difficult to interpret for its contemporaries but not for later readers, some require that we learn how its contemporaries would have read them in order fully to understand them, these facts point to the existence of literary competence, the possession by the reader of protocols for reading. When one reads modernist texts, such as The Waste Land, one has to learn how to read them. One has in fact to learn how to read Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and so forth. Culler remarks that

reading poetry is a rule-governed process of producing meanings; the poem offers a structure which must be filled up and one therefore attempts to invent something, guided by a series of formal rules derived from one's experience of reading poetry, which both make possible invention and impose limits on it.

5. Structuralism is oriented toward the reader insofar as it says that the reader constructs literature, that is, reads the text with certain conventions and expectations in mind. Some post-structural theorists, Fish for instance, hold that the reader constructs the text entirely, through the conventions of reading of her interpretive community.

6. In joining with formalism in the identification of literariness as the focus on the message itself as opposed to a focus on the addressee, the addresser, or the referential function of the message, structuralism places ambiguity, as Genette points out, at the heart of the poetic function, as its self-referential nature puts the message, the addresser and the addressee all in doubt. Hence literary textuality is complexly meaningful.

7. Structuralism underlines the importance of genre, i.e., basic rules as to how subjects are approached, about conventions of reading for theme, level of seriousness, significance of language use, and so forth. "Different genres lead to different expectations of types of situations and actions, and of psychological, moral, and esthetic values." (Genette)

8. The idea that literature is an institution is another structuralist contribution; that a number of its protocols for creation and for reading are in fact controlled by that institutional nature.

9. Through structuralism, literature is seen as a whole: it functions as a system of meaning and reference no matter how many works there are, two or two thousand. Thus any work becomes the parole, the individual articulation, of a cultural langue, or system of signification. As literature is a system, no work of literature is an autonomous whole; similarly, literature itself is not autonomous but is part of the larger structures of signification of the culture.

10. The following are some points based on Culler's ideas about the advantages of structuralism, having to do with the idea that literature is a protocol of reading:

1. Structuralism is a firmer starting-point for reading literature as literature than are other approaches, because literariness and/or fictionality does not have to be shown to be inherent in the text, but in the way it is read. It explains, for instance, why the same sentence can have a different meaning depending on the genre in which it appears, it explains how the boundaries of the literary can change from age to age, it accommodates and explains differing readings of a text given differing reading protocols -- one can read a text for its 'literary' qualities or for its sociological or ideological qualities, for instance, and read as complex a text in doing so.

2. One gains an appreciation of literature as an institution, as a coherent and related set of codes and practices, and so one sees also that reading is situated reading, that is, it is in a certain meaning-domain or set of codes. It follows that when literature is written, it will be written under these codes (it can break or alter the codes to create effects, but this is still a function of the codes).

3. Consequently one can be more open to challenges to and alterations of literary conventions.

4. Once one sees that reading and writing are both coded and based on conventions one can read 'against the grain' in a disciplined way, and one can read readings of literature -- reading can become a more self-reflexive process.

IV. Structural Analysis
As structuralism is so broad a theory with such extensive ramifications, there will be different ways of doing structural analysis. Here are some possible approaches.

1. The study of the basic codes which make narrative possible, and which make it work. This is known generally as narratology, and often produces what might be called a grammar of narrative. Greimas, Barthes, Todorov and others investigated what the components and relations of narrative are. This gives rise to such things as Barthes division of incidents into nuclei and catalyzers, and his promulgation of five codes of narrative, given briefly here, as adapted from Cohen and Shires:

1. proairetic -- things (events) in their sequence; recognizable actions and their effects.

2. semic -- the field where signifiers point to other signifiers to produce a chain of recognizable connotations. In a general sense, that which enables meaning to happen.

3. hermeneutic -- the code of narrative suspense, including the ways in which the story suspends closure, structures parallels, repetitions and so forth toward closure.

4. symbolic -- marks out meaning as difference; the binaries which the culture uses/enacts to create its meanings; binaries which, of course,but disunite and join.

5. reference -- refers to various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society; creates the familiarity of reality by quoting from a large assortment of social texts which mediate and organize cultural knowledge of reality -- medicine, law, morality, psychology, philosophy, religion, plus all the clichs and proverbs of popular culture.

6. diegetic (C&S's addition) -- the narration, the text's encoding of narrative conventions that signify how it means as a telling.

2. The study of the construction of meaning in texts, as for instance through tropes, through repetitions with difference. Hayden White analyzes the structure of Western historical narrative through a theory of tropes; Lodge shows how metaphor and metonymy can be seen to form the bases respectively of symbolic and realist texts.

3. The study of mimesis, that is, of the representation of reality, becomes i) the study of naturalization, of the way in which reality effects are created and the way in which we create a sense of reality and meaning from texts; ii) the study of conventions of meaning in texts.

4. Texts are also analyzed for their structures of opposition, particularly binary oppositions, as informing structures and as representing the central concerns and imaginative structures of the society.

5. Texts can be analyzed as they represent the codes and conventions of the culture -- we can read the texts as ways of understanding the meaning-structures of the cultures and sub-cultures out of which they are written and which they represent.

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a complicated term, or set of ideas, one that has only emerged as an area of academic study since the mid-1980s. Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology. It's hard to locate it temporally or historically, because it's not clear exactly when postmodernism begins.

Perhaps the easiest way to start thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge. Modernism has two facets, or two modes of definition, both of which are relevant to understanding postmodernism.

The first facet or definition of modernism comes from the aesthetic movement broadly labeled "modernism." This movement is roughly coterminous with twentieth century Western ideas about art (though traces of it in emergent forms can be found in the nineteenth century as well). Modernism, as you probably know, is the movement in visual arts, music, literature, and drama which rejected the old Victorian standards of how art should be made, consumed, and what it should mean. In the period of "high modernism," from around 1910 to 1930, the major figures of modernism literature helped radically to redefine what poetry and fiction could be and do: figures like Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Proust, Mallarme, Kafka, and Rilke are considered the founders of twentieth-century modernism.

From a literary perspective, the main characteristics of modernism include:

1. an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing (and in visual arts as well); an emphasis on HOW seeing (or reading or perception itself) takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived. An example of this would be stream-of-consciousness writing.

2. a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. Faulkner's multiply-narrated stories are an example of this aspect of modernism.

3. a blurring of distinctions between genres, so that poetry seems more documentary (as in T.S. Eliot or ee cummings) and prose seems more poetic (as in Woolf or Joyce).

4. an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials.

5. a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways.

6. a rejection of elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs (as in the poetry of William Carlos Williams) and a rejection, in large part, of formal aesthetic theories, in favor of spontaneity and discovery in creation.

7. A rejection of the distinction between "high" and "low" or popular culture, both in choice of materials used to produce art and in methods of displaying, distributing, and consuming art.

Postmodernism, like modernism, follows most of these same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness. Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject.

But--while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf's To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.

Another way of looking at the relation between modernism and postmodernism helps to clarify some of these distinctions. According to Frederic Jameson, modernism and postmodernism are cultural formations which accompany particular stages of capitalism. Jameson outlines three primary phases of capitalism which dictate particular cultural practices (including what kind of art and literature is produced). The first is market capitalism, which occurred in the eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries in Western Europe, England, and the United States (and all their spheres of influence). This first phase is associated with particular technological developments, namely, the steam-driven motor, and with a particular kind of aesthetics, namely, realism. The second phase occurred from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century (about WWII); this phase, monopoly capitalism, is associated with electric and internal combustion motors, and with modernism. The third, the phase we're in now, is multinational or consumer capitalism (with the emphasis placed on marketing, selling, and consuming commodities, not on producing them), associated with nuclear and electronic technologies, and correlated with postmodernism.

Like Jameson's characterization of postmodernism in terms of modes of production and technologies, the second facet, or definition, of postmodernism comes more from history and sociology than from literature or art history. This approach defines postmodernism as the name of an entire social formation, or set of social/historical attitudes; more precisely,this approach contrasts "postmodernity" with "modernity," rather than "postmodernism" with "modernism."

What's the difference? "Modernism" generally refers to the broad aesthetic movements of the twentieth century; "modernity" refers to a set of philosophical, political, and ethical ideas which provide the basis for the aesthetic aspect of modernism. "Modernity" is older than "modernism;" the label "modern," first articulated in nineteenth-century sociology, was meant to distinguish the present era from the previous one, which was labeled "antiquity." Scholars are always debating when exactly the "modern" period began, and how to distinguish between what is modern and what is not modern; it seems like the modern period starts earlier and earlier every time historians look at it. But generally, the "modern" era is associated with the European Enlightenment, which begins roughly in the middle of the eighteenth century. (Other historians trace elements of enlightenment thought back to the Renaissance or earlier, and one could argue that Enlightenment thinking begins with the eighteenth century. I usually date "modern" from 1750, if only because I got my Ph.D. from a program at Stanford called "Modern Thought and Literature," and that program focused on works written after 1750).

The basic ideas of the Enlightenment are roughly the same as the basic ideas of humanism. Jane Flax's article gives a good summary of these ideas or premises (on p. 41). I'll add a few things to her list.

1. There is a stable, coherent, knowable self. This self is conscious, rational, autonomous, and universal--no physical conditions or differences substantially affect how this self operates.

2. This self knows itself and the world through reason, or rationality, posited as the highest form of mental functioning, and the only objective form.

3. The mode of knowing produced by the objective rational self is "science," which can provide universal truths about the world, regardless of the individual status of the knower.

4. The knowledge produced by science is "truth," and is eternal.

5. The knowledge/truth produced by science (by the rational objective knowing self) will always lead toward progress and perfection. All human institutions and practices can be analyzed by science (reason/objectivity) and improved.

6. Reason is the ultimate judge of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good (what is legal and what is ethical). Freedom consists of obedience to the laws that conform to the knowledge discovered by reason.

7. In a world governed by reason, the true will always be the same as the good and the right (and the beautiful); there can be no conflict between what is true and what is right (etc.).

8. Science thus stands as the paradigm for any and all socially useful forms of knowledge. Science is neutral and objective; scientists, those who produce scientific knowledge through their unbiased rational capacities, must be free to follow the laws of reason, and not be motivated by other concerns (such as money or power).

9. Language, or the mode of expression used in producing and disseminating knowledge, must be rational also. To be rational, language must be transparent; it must function only to represent the real/perceivable world which the rational mind observes. There must be a firm and objective connection between the objects of perception and the words used to name them (between signifier and signified).

These are some of the fundamental premises of humanism, or of modernism. They serve--as you can probably tell--to justify and explain virtually all of our social structures and institutions, including democracy, law, science, ethics, and aesthetics.

Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as "disorder," which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between "order" and "disorder," so that they can assert the superiority of "order." But to do this, they have to have things that represent "disorder"--modern societies thus continually have to create/construct "disorder." In western culture, this disorder becomes "the other"--defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of "disorder," and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society.

The ways that modern societies go about creating categories labeled as "order" or "disorder" have to do with the effort to achieve stability. Francois Lyotard (the theorist whose works Sarup describes in his article on postmodernism) equates that stability with the idea of "totality," or a totalized system (think here of Derrida's idea of "totality" as the wholeness or completeness of a system). Totality, and stability, and order, Lyotard argues, are maintained in modern societies through the means of "grand narratives" or "master narratives," which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. A "grand narrative" in American culture might be the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government, and that democracy can and will lead to universal human happiness. Every belief system or ideology has its grand narratives, according to Lyotard; for Marxism, for instance, the "grand narrative" is the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself and a utopian socialist world will evolve. You might think of grand narratives as a kind of meta-theory, or meta-ideology, that is, an ideology that explains an ideology (as with Marxism); a story that is told to explain the belief systems that exist.

Lyotard argues that all aspects of modern societies, including science as the primary form of knowledge, depend on these grand narratives. Postmodernism then is the critique of grand narratives, the awareness that such narratives serve to mask the contradictions and instabilities that are inherent in any social organization or practice. In other words, every attempt to create "order" always demands the creation of an equal amount of "disorder," but a "grand narrative" masks the constructedness of these categories by explaining that "disorder" REALLY IS chaotic and bad, and that "order" REALLY IS rational and good. Postmodernism, in rejecting grand narratives, favors "mini-narratives," stories that explain small practices, local events, rather than large-scale universal or global concepts. Postmodern "mini-narratives" are always situational, provisional, contingent, and temporary, making no claim to universality, truth, reason, or stability.

Another aspect of Enlightenment thought--the final of my 9 points--is the idea that language is transparent, that words serve only as representations of thoughts or things, and don't have any function beyond that. Modern societies depend on the idea that signifiers always point to signifieds, and that reality resides in signifieds. In postmodernism, however, there are only signifiers. The idea of any stable or permanent reality disappears, and with it the idea of signifieds that signifiers point to. Rather, for postmodern societies, there are only surfaces, without depth; only signifiers, with no signifieds.

Another way of saying this, according to Jean Baudrillard, is that in postmodern society there are no originals, only copies--or what he calls "simulacra." You might think, for example, about painting or sculpture, where there is an original work (by Van Gogh, for instance), and there might also be thousands of copies, but the original is the one with the highest value (particularly monetary value). Contrast that with cds or music recordings, where there is no "original," as in painting--no recording that is hung on a wall, or kept in a vault; rather, there are only copies, by the millions, that are all the same, and all sold for (approximately) the same amount of money. Another version of Baudrillard's "simulacrum" would be the concept of virtual reality, a reality created by simulation, for which there is no original. This is particularly evident in computer games/simulations--think of Sim City, Sim Ant, etc.

Finally, postmodernism is concerned with questions of the organization of knowledge. In modern societies, knowledge was equated with science, and was contrasted to narrative; science was good knowledge, and narrative was bad, primitive, irrational (and thus associated with women, children, primitives, and insane people). Knowledge, however, was good for its own sake; one gained knowledge, via education, in order to be knowledgeable in general, to become an educated person. This is the ideal of the liberal arts education. In a postmodern society, however, knowledge becomes functional--you learn things, not to know them, but to use that knowledge. As Sarup points out (p. 138), educational policy today puts emphasis on skills and training, rather than on a vague humanist ideal of education in general. This is particularly acute for English majors. "What will you DO with your degree?"

Not only is knowledge in postmodern societies characterized by its utility, but knowledge is also distributed, stored, and arranged differently in postmodern societies than in modern ones. Specifically, the advent of electronic computer technologies has revolutionized the modes of knowledge production, distribution, and consumption in our society (indeed, some might argue that postmodernism is best described by, and correlated with, the emergence of computer technology, starting in the 1960s, as the dominant force in all aspects of social life). In postmodern societies, anything which is not able to be translated into a form recognizable and storable by a computer--i.e. anything that's not digitizable--will cease to be knowledge. In this paradigm, the opposite of "knowledge" is not "ignorance," as it is the modern/humanist paradigm, but rather "noise." Anything that doesn't qualify as a kind of knowledge is "noise," is something that is not recognizable as anything within this system.

Lyotard says (and this is what Sarup spends a lot of time explaining) that the important question for postmodern societies is who decides what knowledge is (and what "noise" is), and who knows what needs to be decided. Such decisions about knowledge don't involve the old modern/humanist qualifications: for example, to assess knowledge as truth (its technical quality), or as goodness or justice (its ethical quality) or as beauty (its aesthetic quality). Rather, Lyotard argues, knowledge follows the paradigm of a language game, as laid out by Wittgenstein. I won't go into the details of Wittgenstein's ideas of language games; Sarup gives a pretty good explanation of this concept in his article, for those who are interested.

There are lots of questions to be asked about postmodernism, and one of the most important is about the politics involved--or, more simply, is this movement toward fragmentation, provisionality, performance, and instability something good or something bad? There are various answers to that; in our contemporary society, however, the desire to return to the pre-postmodern era (modern/humanist/Enlightenment thinking) tends to get associated with conservative political, religious, and philosophical groups. In fact, one of the consequences of postmodernism seems to be the rise of religious fundamentalism, as a form of resistance to the questioning of the "grand narratives" of religious truth. This is perhaps most obvious (to us in the US, anyway) in muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East, which ban postmodern books--like Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses --because they deconstruct such grand narratives.

This association between the rejection of postmodernism and conservatism or fundamentalism may explain in part why the postmodern avowal of fragmentation and multiplicity tends to attract liberals and radicals. This is why, in part, feminist theorists have found postmodernism so attractive, as Sarup, Flax, and Butler all point out.

On another level, however, postmodernism seems to offer some alternatives to joining the global culture of consumption, where commodities and forms of knowledge are offered by forces far beyond any individual's control. These alternatives focus on thinking of any and all action (or social struggle) as necessarily local, limited, and partial--but nonetheless effective. By discarding "grand narratives" (like the liberation of the entire working class) and focusing on specific local goals (such as improved day care centers for working mothers in your own community), postmodernist politics offers a way to theorize local situations as fluid and unpredictable, though influenced by global trends. Hence the motto for postmodern politics might well be "think globally, act locally"--and don't worry about any grand scheme or master plan.


Reception and Reader-Response Theory

Reader-response theory may be traced initially to theorists such as I. A. Richards (The Principles of Literary Criticism, Practical Criticism and How to Read a Page) or Louise Rosenblatt (Literature as Exploration or The Reader, the Text, the Poem). For Rosenblatt and Richards the idea of a "correct" reading--though difficult to attain--was always the goal of the "educated" reader (armed, of course, with appropriate aesthetic apparatus). For Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in this Class?, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in "Paradise Lost" and Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of the Seventeenth-Century Reader), the reader's ability to understand a text is also subject a reader's particular "interpretive community." To simplify, a reader brings certain assumptions to a text based on the interpretive strategies he/she has learned in a particular interpretive community. For Fish, the interpretive community serves somewhat to "police" readings and thus prohibit outlandish interpretations. In contrast Wolfgang Iser argued that the reading process is always subjective. In The Implied Reader, Iser sees reading as a dialectical process between the reader and text. For Hans-Robert Jauss, however (Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, and Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics), a reader's aesthetic experience is always bound by time and historical determinants.

Key Terms:

Horizons of expectations - a term developed by Hans Robert Jauss to explain how a reader's "expectations" or frame of reference is based on the reader's past experience of literature and what preconceived notions about literature the reader possesses (i.e., a reader's aesthetic experience is bound by time and historical determinants). Jauss also contended that for a work to be considered a classic it needed to exceed a reader's horizons of expectations.

Implied reader - a term developed by Wolfgang Iser; the implied reader [somewhat akin to an "ideal reader"] is "a hypothetical reader of a text. The implied reader [according to Iser] "embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect -- predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader" (Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown - Glossary of Literary Theory).

Interpretive communities - a concept, articulated by Stanley Fish, that readers within an "interpretive community" share reading strategies, values and interpretive assumptions (Barbara McManus).

Transactional analysis - a concept developed by Louise Rosenblatt asserting that meaning is produced in a transaction of a reader with a text. As an approach, then, the critic would consider "how the reader interprets the text as well as how the text produces a response in her" (Dobie 132 - see General Resources below).

Further References:

  • Austin, J. L.How to Do Things with Words. 1962
  • Bleich, David. Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism. 1978
  • Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. 1975.
  • Booth, Stephen. An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.
  • Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. 1981.
  • Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. 1979.
  • Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.
  • Holland, Norman. 5 Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1974.
  • ---. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.
  • Jauss, Hans Robert. Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.
  • ---. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. U of Minneapolis P, 1982.
  • Mailloux, Steven. Interpretive Conventions: The Reader in the Study of American Fiction. 1982
  • Holland, Norman. The Dynamics of Literary Response. 1968, 5 Readers Reading. 1975
  • Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen, 1982.
  • Richards, I.A. How to Read a Page. 1942.
  • ---. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. 1929. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935.
  • Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. 1978.
  • Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978.
  • Suleiman, Susan R., and Inge Crosman, eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Princeton UP, 1980.
  • Tompkins, Jane, ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Suggested Websites:

Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Phenomenology is a philosophical method, first developed by Edmund Husserl (HUHSS-erel), that proposed "phenomenological reduction" so that everything not "immanent" to consciousness must be excluded; all realities must be treated as pure "phenomena" and this is the only absolute data from which we can begin. Husserl viewed consciousness always as intentional and that the act of consciousness, the thinking subject and the object it "intends," are inseparable. Art is not a means of securing pleasure, but a revelation of being. The work is the phenomenon by which we come to know the world (Eagleton, p. 54; Abrams, p. 133, Guerin, p. 263).

Hermeneutics sees interpretation as a circular process whereby valid interpretation can be achieved by a sustained, mutually qualifying interplay between our progressive sense of the whole and our retrospective understanding of its component parts. Two dominant theories that emerged from Wilhelm Dilthey's original premise were that of E. D. Hirsch who, in accord with Dilthey, felt a valid interpretation was possible by uncovering the work's authorial intent (though informed by historical and cultural determinants), and in contrast, that of Martin Heidegger (HIGH-deg-er) who argued that a reader must experience the "inner life" of a text in order to understand it at all. The reader's "being-in-the-world" or dasein is fraught with difficulties since both the reader and the text exist in a temporal and fluid state. For Heidegger or Hans Georg Gadamer (GAH-de-mer), then, a valid interpretation may become irrecoverable and will always be relative.

Key Terms:

Dasein - simply, "being there," or "being-in-the world" - Heidegger argued that "what is distinctive about human existence is its Dasein ('givenness'): our consciousness both projects the things of the world and at the same time is subjected to the world by the very nature of existence in the world" (Selden and Widdowson 52 - see General Resources below).

Intentionality - "is at the heart of knowing. We live in meaning, and we live 'towards,' oriented to experience. Consequently there is an intentional structure in textuality and expression, in self-knowledge and in knowledge of others. This intentionality is also a distance: consciousness is not identical with its objects, but is intended consciousness" (quoted from Dr. John Lye's website - see suggested resources below).

Phenomenological Reduction - a concept most frequently associated with Edmund Husserl; as explained by Terry Eagleton (see General Resources below) "To establish certainty, then, we must first of all ignore, or 'put in brackets,' anything which is beyond our immediate experience: we must reduce the external world to the contents of our consciousness alone....Everything not 'immanent' to consciousness must be rigorously excluded: all realities must be treated as pure 'phenomena,' in terms of their appearances in our mind, and this is the only absolute data from which we can begin" (55).

Further references:

  • Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
  • Habermas, Jürgen (JUR-gen HAH-bur-mahs). Communication and the Evolution of Society.
  • Halliburton, David. Poetic Thinking: An Approach to Heidegger.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
  • Hirsch, E.D. The Aims of Interpretation.
  • Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans. David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.
  • Magliola, Robert R. Phenomenology and Literature: An Introduction.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962.
  • Palmer, Richard. Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schliermacher.
  • Ricouer, Paul. The Conflict of Interpretation: Essays in Hermeneutics.

Suggested Websites:


Existentialism is a philosophy (promoted especially by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus) that views each person as an isolated being who is cast into an alien universe, and conceives the world as possessing no inherent human truth, value, or meaning. A person's life, then, as it moves from the nothingness from which it came toward the nothingness where it must end, defines an existence which is both anguished and absurd (Guerin). In a world without sense, all choices are possible, a situation which Sartre viewed as human beings central dilemma: "Man [woman] is condemned to be free." In contrast to atheist existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard theorized that belief in God (given that we are provided with no proof or assurance) required a conscious choice or "leap of faith." The major figures include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre (sart or SAR-treh), Albert Camus (kah-MUE or ka-MOO) , Simone de Beauvoir (bohv-WAHR) , Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers (YASS-pers), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (mer-LOH pawn-TEE).

Key Terms:

Absurd - a term used to describe existence--a world without inherent meaning or truth.

Authenticity - to make choices based on an individual code of ethics (commitment) rather than because of societal pressures. A choice made just because "it's what people do" would be considered inauthentic.

"Leap of faith" - although Kierkegaard acknowledged that religion was inherently unknowable and filled with risks, faith required an act of commitment (the "leap of faith"); the commitment to Christianity would also lessen the despair of an absurd world.

Further references:

* Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy.
* Camus, Albert. The Stranger.
* Cooper, D. Existentialism, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
* Hannay, A. Kierkegaard, London: Routledge, 1982.
* Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Tr. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
* Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling.
* Lentricchia, Frank. After the New Criticism. See chapter 3.
* Marcel, G. The Philosophy of Existentialism, New York: Citadel Press, 1968.
* Moran, R. Authority and Estrangement: An Essay on Self Knowledge, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
* Nietzsche, Fredrich. Beyond Good and Evil.
* Ricoeur, P. Oneself as Another. Tr. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
* Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism and Being and Nothingness.
* Taylor, C. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Suggested Websites:

Some Characteristics of Contemporary Theory

Contemporary Literary Theory is not a single thing but a collection of theoretical approaches which are marked by a number of premises, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of the them.

1. Meaning is assumed to be created by difference, not by "presence," (that is, identity with the object of meaning). As the revisionist Freudian Jacques Lacan remarks, a sign signals the absence of that which it signifies. Signs do not directly represent the reality to which they refer, but (following the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure) mean by difference from other words in a concept set. All meaning is only meaning in reference to, and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense. Meanings are multiple, changing, contextual.

2. There is no foundational 'truth' or reality in the universe (as far as we can know)--no absolutes, no eternalities, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent truths generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, values and identity are cultural constructs, not stable entities. Even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as Kaja Silverman points out in The Subject of Semiotics, in that the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated.

3. Language is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not be fully aware. Contemporary theory attempts to explore the implications (i.e., the inter-foldings, from 'plier', to fold) of levels of meaning in language.

4. Language itself always has excessive signification, that is, it always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context; signification is always 'spilling over', especially in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature' are. This excessive signification is created in part by the rhetorical, or tropic, characteristics of language (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else, as in a metaphor, a metonym, or irony), and the case is made by Paul de Man that there is an inherent opposition (or undecidability, or aporia) between the grammatical and the rhetorical operations of language.

5. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture and meaning. Humans 'are' their symbol systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, relational, dynamic.

6. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use.

7. A text is, as the etymology of the word "text" proclaims, a tissue, a woven thing (L. texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts, echoes of which it continually evokes (filiations, these echoes are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it properly be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process of engagements. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminancy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them become more apparent.

8. The borders of literature are challenged by the ideas

a) that all texts share common traits, for instance that they all are constructed of rhetorical, tropic, linguistic and narrative elements, and

b) that all experience can be viewed as a text: experience insofar as it is knowable is consequently symbolically configured, and human activity and even perception is both constructed and known through the conventions of social practice; hence as a constructed symbolic field experience is textual.

While on the one hand this blurring of differentiation between 'literature' and other texts may seem to make literature less privileged, on the other hand it opens those non-literary (but not non-imaginative, and only problematically non-fictional) texts, including 'social texts', the grammars and vocabularies of social action and cultural practice, up to the kind of complex analysis that literature has been opened to.

9. So the nature of language and meaning is seen as more intricate, potentially more subversive, more deeply embedded in psychic, linguistic and cultural processes, more areas of experience are seen as textual, and texts are seen as more deeply embedded in and constitutive of social processes.

None of these ideas shared by contemporary theories are new to the intellectual traditions of our culture. It appears to many, however, that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental values of literature and literary study: that it attacks the customary belief that literature draws on and creates meanings that reflect and affirm our central (essential, human, lasting) values; that it attacks the privileged meaningfulness of 'literature'; that it attacks the idea that a text is authored, that is, that the authority for its meaningfulness rests on the activity of an individual; that it attacks the trust that the text that is read can be identified in its intentions and meanings with the text that was written; and ultimately that it attacks the very existence of value and meaning itself, the ground of meaningfulness, rooted in the belief in those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based.

On the other hand, 'theory people' point out that theory does is not erase literature but expands the concept of the literary and renews the way texts in all areas of intellectual disciplines are or can be read; that it explores the full power of meaning and the full embeddedness of meanings in their historical placement; that it calls for a more critical, more flexible reading.

It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often skeptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issue is whether theory has good reasons for the questioning of the assumptions, and whether it can lead to practice that is in fact productive.

© 1997, 2000 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.
As are all of my posts for this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail the author:

Derrida and Deconstruction

Heidegger meant by "the end of philosophy" the end of a philosophy rooted in metaphysics. He argued that the only real philosophical questions have to do with "being" (ontology) and that "transcendental" questions were meaningless. By the sixties, the notion of the "end of philosophy " had developed into the notion that philosophy was nothing other than the ideology of the western ethos. The liberal humanist tradition presented a de facto situation (its own pre-eminence) as a de jure situation (its truth). In other words, it presented its traditional privilege as a natural superiority. Such a position is ideological.
Derrida argued that Heidegger had not escaped transcendentalism, that his "Being" was as transcendental as any other "Transcendental Signified." He also argued that even if the charge against philosophy as ideology were true, the charge was levelled in the language of philosophy, which can not be escaped. All that was really being asked was that the dominant ideology (philosophy = the ideology of the western ethos) be replaced by another broader or at least different ideology such as Marxism (philosophy=discourse of the ruling class), Freudianism (philosophy =sexual symptom), anti-Freudianism (philosophy =phallocratic ideology). In the end, he argued, the order of reason is absolute, "since it is only to itself that an appeal against it can be brought, only in itself that a protest against it can be made; on its own terrain, it leaves us no other recourse than to stratagem and strategy."
Derrida did not quarrel with Heidegger's position that history, as perceived in the philosophic tradition was over; only that Heidegger himself had not escaped it. Derrida raised the question of what there was to say after philosophy was over (but ironically still in place, because reason is absolute and can only be questioned in its own terms). The strategy he chose was duplicity, the playing of a double game. He would operate in the language of reason, since there was no other, but try to lay traps for it by posing it problems it could not answer, exposing the inherent contradictions in apparently reasonable positions. He called this strategy deconstruction, after Heidegger's term destruktion.
For Heidegger, destruktion was essentially, the history of the inquiry into history. Dasein , the individual's being in the world, is often trapped by the everyday ordinariness of life into interpreting itself in terms of the world it knows and the tradition it inherits. This condition Heidegger calls fallenness, and the individuals who have fallen into it das man (the they). Anyone who wishes to live authentically must escape from the average everyday ordinariness of life and contemplate his/her own death (non-being, or nothingness). This is done through the agency of angst , a kind of generalized suffering caused by the fear of dying, and the intellectual exercise of destruktion. Destruktion, then is a combination of a negative analysis of "today," the average everyday world and a positive analysis of history that tries to achieve authenticity through the rigorous questioning of accepted authority. Often this means breaking a word into its component parts in order to trace its history.
Derrida's deconstruction is a more limited but even more rigorous form of interrogation. Since the "speaking subject," when he/she speaks, must speak the language of reason, there must exist some silent region where the double agent deconstructor can sort out his stratagem against the Logos, the rules of reason. In order for this to be possible, two conditions must maintain:
1. In order for the double game of duplicity to be played, the language of philosophy must already be full of duplicity (both in its sense of doubleness and its sense of hypocrisy or lying.)
2. The strategist (speaking subject, deconstructor) must resist the power of Logos (reason) by maintaining a indefensible position of empiricism, erasing the distinction between truths of fact and truths of reason. This will be accomplished through différance.
For Heidegger, difference was the result of temporality. Since history and language precede the self and help construct the self, the self can never step outside itself and see itself outside of history and language. The self (in Heidegger's language dasein) can only conceive an historically past self, different from the existential self experiencing the world in the present. In that sense, the self (as subject) is always different from the self (as object).
Derrida's concept la différance contains two notions: difference and deference, a separation of identity and a separation in time. Derrida came to his notion through an attempt to show the impossibility of Husserl's promise of a "phenomenology of history" by deconstructing the notion. He showed that a phenomenology of history would have to answer the question "how is a truth possible for us?" But if a truth is to be truth, it must be absolute, independent of any point of view(unless, of course, we are God, in which case the question is meaningless). Phenomenology seeks the origin of truth, and it locates this origin in an inaugural fact which by definition can only occur once.
The phenomenologist argues that only the present exists. The past is retained in the present through the present ruins of a civilization that is absent. The future is mooted, or predicted, but only in the present. But in order for the past to be retained in the present and the future to beannounced in the present, the present must not only be present. It must also be a present that is still to come (future) and a present that is already past (past). At this point difference appears. The present is not identical with itself.
This difference raises again the problem of the inaugural fact Suppose we have the trace of some inaugural event, say the stone foundations at L'Anse aux Meadows. Out of our present we may for ourselves assume these to be Viking remains, though we cannot with certainty know what meaning they had for their makers. We cannot make our meaning coincide with their meaning, yet we know that when that past was a present, it had all the properties of a present. That other must also be a same. Again, this failure of the past to coincide with itself is a source of différance.
If we are to develop a phenomenology of history we must posit what Husserl called "a principle of principles." This principle is that history is meaningful, and however confused or in need of mediation, it can be transmitted from generation to generation. It is univocal, even though it can never be articulated at any moment. Being and meaning can never coincide except at infinity, so meaning is always deferred. The de jure situation (what is right) and the de facto situation (what is fact) can also never coincide. The reason for this is that there is an originary difference between fact and right, being and meaning.
Another necessary but paradoxical concept is the idea of originary delay. Derrida argues that a first is only a first by consequence of a second that follows it. The first is only recognizable as a first and not merely a singular by the arrival of the second. The second is therefore the prerequisite of the first. It permits the first to be first by its delayed arrival. The first, recognizable only after the second, is in this respect a third. Origin, then is a kind of dress rehearsal, what Derrida calls la répétition d'une première, in terms of the theatre, a representation of the first public performance which has not yet occurred. The original, in that sense, is always a copy. In this way, Derrida deconstructs Husserl's principle of principles which always relied on being able to distinguish the original from later copies.
If we apply the same analysis to signs and things in the "real" world we come to the paradoxical situation that the sign precedes the referent. The sign "dog," precedes the four-legged barking creature because the creature is only recognizable as that after the sign "dog" has been applied to it. Derrida has shown that, contrary to Husserl's notion of a pure origin, consciousness never precedes language,, and we cannot see language as a representation of a silently lived through experience.
This is the core of deconstructive thinking. We can only understand the priority of the sign by an enquiry into writing. Earlier, we looked at graphemes (the units of writing) as a second-order sign system. Derrida sees the relationship between these signs as semiological. The graphic sign stands in for the phonemic sign. It is therefore "the sign of a sign," while the oral sign is the "sign of the thing." Writing is then supplementary. (Even the oral sign is supplementary, since it exists as supplement to the "real world." The graphic sign of writing is particularly supplemental since it is a supplement to a supplement, a sign of a sign.) In Off Grammatology Derrida argues that writing should not be subordinated to speech, and this subordination is nothing more than an historical prejudice. He argues further that to define a graphic sign is to define any sign. Every sign is a signifier whose signified is another signifier. Think of looking up signifiers in a dictionary. What you get is a list of other signifiers. Meaning is always deferred.
The idea of the supplement raises some interesting questions. We can think of the origin as a place where there is no originary, only a supplement in the place of a deficient originary. It is deficient for this reason. We can think of the supplement as a surplus, something extra added to the whole and outside of it. But if the whole is really the whole, then nothing can be added to it. If the supplement is something and not nothing, then it must expose the defect of the whole, since something that can accomodate the addition of a supplement must be lacking something within itself. Derrida calls this "the logic of the supplement."
In the same way, the present is only present on the condition that it allude to the absence from which it distinguishes itself. Metaphysics, Derrida argues, is the act of erasing this distinguishing mark, the trace of the absent. We may now define trace as the sign left by the absent thing, after it has passed on the scene of its former presence. Every present, in order to know itself as present, bears the trace of an absent which defines it. It follows then that an originary present must bear an originary trace, the present trace of a past which never took place, an absolute past. In this way, Derrida believes, he achieves a position beyond absolute knowledge.
Derrida distinguishes between a meditating on presence, which he defines as philosophy, and the possibility of meditating on non-presence. How can these two kinds of thinking, one of which takes issue with the other co-exist? Derrida argues that philosophy is always already there (not that it has always been.) Philosophy can only be a thinking of presence, since experience is lived and tested in the present. The other kind of thinking which is not philosophical cannot therefore appeal to individual empirical experience. Instead it appeals to a general experience.
At the level of text, then, the appeal is to writing in general. Every text is a double text. It is philosophical and and understood by classical interpretation at one level of its reading. But it also contains traces and contradictions, indications of the second text which a classical reading can never uncover. No synthesis is possible. The second text is not an opposite which can be reconciled. It is what Derrida calls its counterpart, slightly phased. It requires a deconstructive reading of the difference (what Derrida calls a double science or double séance).
The meditation on non-presence is a meditation on the self as other. Every metaphysical text is separated from itself by what Derrida calls a "scarcely perceptible veil." A slight displacement in the reading of the text
is sufficient to collapse one into the other, to make comedy wisdom or vice versa. Derrida's duplicity splits the metaphysical text in two, revealing its inherent contradictions. Derrida's analysis insists on the undecidability of words, their unresolvable contradictions.
One of the most important concepts in Derrida's analysis is the idea of "sous rature," (under erasure.) Heidegger often crossed out the word Being (Being) and let both the word and its erasure stand. He felt the Being was prior to and beyond signification or meaning, and hence to signify it was inadequate, though there existed no alternative. Derrida extends this practise to all signs. Since any signifier has as its signified another signifier, it always defers meaning and it always carries traces of other meanings. It must therefore be studied as defective, incomplete, under erasure.

A few (over-simplified) definitions:

Grammatology: The science of writing. Derrida proposes to move beyond traditional models of writing that describe its history and evolution to develop a theory of writing, to apply that theory and to move in the direction of a new writing. The difficult in doing so is the result of the relationship between writing and metaphysics.

The metaphysics of presence. The assumption that the physical presence of a speaker authenticates his speech. Speaking would then precede writing (the sign of a sign), since the writer is not present at the reading of his text to authenticate it. Spoken language is assumed to be directly related to thought, writing a supplement to spoken language, standing in for it. This is the result of phonocentrism the valorization of speech over writing.

Logocentrism: "In the beginning was the word." Logocentrism is the belief that knowledge is rooted in a primeval language(now lost) given by God to humans. God (or some other transcendental signifier: the Idea, the Great Spirit, the Self, etc;) acts a foundation for all our thought, language and action. He is the truth whose manifestation is the world. He is the foundation for the binaries by which we think: God/Man, spiritual/physical, man/woman, good/evil. The first term of the binary is valorized, and a chain of binaries constitutes a hierarchy.

Binary Oppositions: The hierarchical relation of elements that results from logocentrism. Derrida is interested more in the margins, the supplements, than in the centre.

The supplement: Derrida takes this term from Rousseau, who saw a supplement as "an inessential extra added to something complete in itself." Derrida argues that what is complete in itself cannot be added to, and so a supplement can only occur where there is an originary lack. In any binary set of terms, the second can be argued to exist in order to fill in an originary lack in the first. This relationship, in which one term secretly resides in another, Derrida calls invagination.

Originary lack: Some absence in a thing that permits it to be supplemented.

Metonymic chain: Derrida argues with Saussure's notion that signs are binary. (signifier, signified) The signified, he says, is always a signifier in another system. As a result, meaning cannot be in a sign, since it is always dispersed, deferred and delayed. (dictionary analogy). In terms of a text, then, all signifiers must be seen as defective. A signifier always contains traces of other signifiers.

Trace: The indications of an absence that define a presence. (The present is known as the present only through the evidence of a past that once was a present.) The traces of other signifiers in any signifier means that it must always be read under erasure.(sur rasure).

Erasure: The decision to read a signifier or a text as if its meaning were clear, with the understanding that this is only a strategy.

Difference (Différance) A pun on difference and deference. Any signifier (or chain of signification, ie. text) must infinitely defer its meaning because of the nature of the sign (the signified is composed of signifiers). At the same time, meaning must be kept under erasure because any text is always out of phase with itself, doubled, in an argument with itself that can be glimpsed through the aporias it generates.
Deconstruction: an attempt to dismantle the binary oppositions which govern a text by focussing on the aporias or impasses of meaning. A deconstructive reading will identify the logocentric assumptions of a text and the binaries and hierarchies it contains. It will demonstrate how a logocentric text always undercuts its own assumptions, its own system of logic. It will do this largely through an examination of the traces, supplements, and invaginations in the text.

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Franz Stanzel: Narrative Theory and the Typological Circle

Franz Stanzel set out to derive a comprehensive typology of all conceivable narrative structures. His intent, he said,was "to systematize the various kinds and degrees of mediacy." (Mittelbarkeit) [1] that result from the shifting relationship between the story and how it is being told. Stanzel says that his project is to show how novels and short stories "render their mediacy."[2] and thus affect the structure of the narrative. "Render" is the translation of the German verb gestalten and connotes the act of in-forming and shaping. Stanzel writes:

Whenever a piece of news is conveyed, whenever something

is reported, there is a mediator- the voice of a narrator is

audible. I term this phenomenon "mediacy."[3]

Three basic narrative positions:

1 First-person narrative: The world of the characters is identical to the world of the narrator.

2 Authorial narrative situation: The narrator is outside the world of the characters.

3 Figural narrative situation: There is no apparent narrator. A reflector character thinks, feels and perceives. An illusion of im-mediacy is created.

(In fact, all narration is first-person because there is always a narrator between the reader and the story.)

The constitutive elements of mediacy

1 Person: The narrator either exists as a character within the world of the fictional events of the story, or he exists outside it.

2.Perspective: Perspective may be internal (limited), located in the story, in the protagonist or in the centre of the action, or it may be external (omniscient) outside the story or or its centre of action located in a narrator who does not belong to the world of the characters, or who is merely a subordinate figure.

3 Mode: Who is narrating? The narration may be highly personalized or relatively invisible. Mode distinguishes between what Stanzel calls reportorial narration and scenic presentation. (Otherwise distinguished as "showing" and "telling" or mimesis and diegesis.) Modal possibilities constitute a continuum.


In each of the three narrative situations, another constitutive element or pole of the binary opposition associated with it attains dominance over the other constitutive elements and their poles.

1 Authorial narrative situation: Dominance of external perspective.

2 First-Person narrative situation: Dominance of fictive world.

3 Figural narration: Dominance of the reflector mode.

Possibilities of narrative mediation:

Does the narrator belong to the world of the story, or does he remain in another realm of existence?

2 Does the narrator give the reader an external view of the narrated events, or does he present them from within?

Does the narrator directly convey information to the reader, or does he filter it through the consciousness of one or several characters?


Stanzel uses the term "prototype" for the narrative situation most widely used in any particular period. Victorian writers preferred the authorial narrative or the quasi-autobiographical form of the first-person narration. Twentieth century writers combine authorial and figural elements. At any time, some writers deviate from the historic norm by defamiliarizing the conventions through estrangement. This accounts for the historical development of the form.

Stanzel's typology is used to determine the predominance of the narrative situations in a work. It should be understood that the narrative situation can change at any point. A work is complex of basic narrative forms whose profile may be charted. As well, an individual reader reads according to reading strategies which may very from reader to reader(the indeterminacy of the reader, who through a kind of inertia maintains his spatio-temporal orientation until the text conspicuously signals a change).

Profile of a narrative: The alternation between diegetic-narrative and mimetic-dramatic parts of a narrative (and the overlapping of the two structural elements in "indirect speech" and "free indirect style."

Rhythm of a narrative: The succession of the basic forms of narration( summary, report, description, commentary, scenic presentation interspersed with action report).

Narrative Forms :

Narrative modes

overt mediacy covert mediacy

indirect direct

personalization impersonalization

telling showing

summary scenic presentation

report 1. Scene with extensive dialogue and brief

impersonal allusions to the context and action.


comment 2. Reflection of the fictional events in the

consciousness of a fictional character.

Non-narrative forms:

dramatic forms:


dramatised scene

The Opposition Mode: Teller Character and Reflector Character

a)Teller mode: The teller is there to tell, report, witness, comment, anticipate, recapitulate. He provides a generalized summary or a complete record of events.

b) Reflector mode: The reflector is there to mirror in his own consciousness what is going on in the world outside(or inside). He pretends to be giving an unmediated view, as if the reader were presented with the thing itself. Mediation is camouflaged. He provides arbitrary details, apparently the result of existential situations.

The value of any detail is determined by the mode.

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The New Criticsm

The term "New Criticism" defines the critical theory that has dominated Anglo-American literary criticism for the past fifty years. Its method of close reading and emphasis on the text provided a corrective to fuzzy biographical criticism and subjective enthusiasm, but for many teachers in North America and Britain, it became not a method of criticism, but criticism itself. Alternatives to its interpretive strategies have until recently been regarded with deep suspicion. It is important to understand the precepts of the New Criticism as critical positions and not as the truth about literature before looking at other strategies.

The New Criticism posits that every text is autonomous. History, biography, sociology, psychology, author's intention and reader's private experience are all irrelevant. Any attempt to look at the author's relationship to a work is called "the intentional fallacy." Any attempt to look at the reader's individual response is called "the affective fallacy."

New Criticism argues that each text has a central unity. The responsibility of the reader is to discover this unity. The reader's job is to interpret the text, telling in what ways each of its parts contributes to the central unity. The primary interest is in themes. A text is spoken by a persona (narrator or speaker) who expresses an attitude which must be defined and who speaks in a tone which helps define the attitude: ironic, straightforward or ambiguous. Judgements of the value of a text must be based on the richness of the attitude and the complexity and the balance of the text. The key phrases are ambivalence, ambiguity, tension, irony and paradox.

The reader's analysis of these elements lead him to an examination of the themes. A work is good or bad depending on whether the themes are complex and whether or not they contribute to the central, unifying theme. The more complex the themes are and the more closely they contribute to a central theme (unity) the better the work.

Usually, the New Critics define their themes as oppositions: Life and death, good and evil, love and hate, harmony and strife, order and disorder, eternity and time, reality and appearance, truth and falsehood, emotion and reason, simplicity and complexity, nature and art. The analysis of a text is an exercise in showing how all of its parts contribute to a complex but single (unified) statement about human problems.

The method the reader must use is "close analysis." The reader must look at the words, the syntax, the images, the structure (usually, "the argument"). The words must be understood to be ambiguous. (The more possible meanings a word has, the richer the ambiguity. The reader should search out irony (ambiguous meaning) and paradox (contradictory meaning, hence also ambiguity). The reader must discover tensions in the work. These will be the results of thematic oppositions, though they may also occur as oppositions in imagery: light versus dark, beautiful versus ugly, graceful versus clumsy. The oppositions may also be in the words chosen: concrete versus abstract, energetic versus placid)

The reader must guard against two evils, stock responses (autumn should not make the reader sad unless the poem directs sadness at the thought of autumn) and idiosyncratic (affective) responses. (Lush grass should not make the reader think of cows however often he or she has seen cows in lush grass unless the poem clearly directs the reader to associate cows and lush grass. (See, Jonathon Culler, The Pursuit of Signs)

The key texts are:

Brooks and Warren Understanding Poetry

William Empson Seven Types of Ambiguity

I. A. Richards Practical Criticism

Cleanth Brooks The Well Wrought Urn.


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